Carving and whittling are two of the oldest forms of woodworking and require next to no tools. Whittling means to cut, trim, or shape a stick or piece of wood by taking pieces off with a knife. Carving is similar but can also involve simply carving decorations into wood and can employ other tools. Whittling is best described as the simplest, most primitive form of woodcarvings.
Woods generally used for carving are balsa, basswood, white and yellow cedar, butternut, apple and cherry, hazel wood, birch, pine, cottonwood, red mahogany, redwood, poplar, and walnut. Some of these woods are hard to find, and some are best for specific projects. Basswood is considered one of the best woods for carving. Kiln-dried pine is also suitable.
To pick out wood for carving, there are a few things to look for. You'll want a straight grain and very little change in color, since changes in color indicate changes in hardness. The grain of wood is the pattern created by its fibers. You can test hardness by pressing on the wood with your thumbnail.
You can get wood from your local lumberyard or home improvement store, but craft wood might be easier to find at a crafts store or through mail-order sources. You can also ask your local lumberyard if they have a scrap bin. Sometimes you can find some wood suitable for carving in the scrap bin-and best of all, it's usually free!
A word about lumber: The size you ask for at the lumberyard or home improvement store is different than the actual size of the wood. You may ask for a "one-by-two" or 1-inch by 2-inch board, but its actual size may be 3/4-inch by 1 1/2-inches. ALWAYS measure everything and never assume the size is right without checking.
Tools for Carving and Whitting
If you're woodworking with children of various ages, you may want to let the younger children do some of the finishing work after the piece has been carved, since this is something they can do without getting injured.
Carving and whittling requires few tools, yet those tools must be sharp. Children need to be taught how to use sharp tools without injuring themselves. Mostly this is the result of practice, but in the meantime, expect a few cuts along the way. You need to supervise carefully in the beginning and be ready with some iodine and a Band-Aid.
You may think sharp tools are dangerous when working with children, but it's actually a blunt instrument that is most likely to cause injury, since more pressure needs to be applied to make it work and it's more likely to slip.
To carve anything you'll need some knives. You'll always want to select knives made of high-quality steel so they'll stay sharper longer. A simple three-bladed pocket knife is a good start, since it gives you one large blade for heavier cuts, and two smaller blades for finer work. When buying a folding knife, get one with a lockable blade so it can't collapse while you're whittling or carving.
Other carving and whittling knives include one called a sloyd or short-bladed sloyd knife, which is used for rough cutting, and the whittler's knife, which is especially designed to be useful to the whittler. A craft knife with interchangeable blades, such as those made by X-Acto, is nice to have for fine work. X-Acto makes a whole line of whittling, carving, and craft knives, as well as knife sets.
You'll want to keep your knives sharpened using an oil stone (moistened with oil) or a whetstone (moistened with water). Even a new knife will need to be sharpened, since it has a chisel edge. Finish the job by stroking the blade up and down on what's known as a slickem stick, which is a piece of planed wood with abrasive cloth attached to it, or a leather strap also known as a strop.